Monday, 2 February 2009

An unusual bird

The Woodcock must have dropped in close to the woodland feeding station where we had erected our nets, set on a regular basis throughout the winter to catch birds. Normally each visit yields a few dozen individuals, mostly tits and thrushes, some of which already carry individually numbered metal rings, fitted by licensed ringers operating at other sites. Our studies help researchers to both understand the movements made by birds and to establish variation in the survival rates over time. It is enjoyable and worthwhile work even if, as at this time of the year, it involves an early start on a particularly cold morning. While the work might seem routine, it is never dull and there is always something new to learn or see. Then there are those occasions where you catch something completely new, a bird that is exciting and unexpected.

So it was the other morning; rounding a corner by the main nets, there was a sudden, audible burst of wing beats as a Woodcock erupted from the ground, taking flight only to deposit itself in one of our nets. Each net is made of very fine material, virtually invisible to the bird, which is strung in such a way that the bird is held within a shelf-like pocket, untangled but sufficiently restrained so as not to effect an escape. There was our Woodcock, the first that I had seen in the hand; a beautifully marked reddish-brown bird, medium-sized and with an exceptionally long thin bill. Highly secretive in nature and largely nocturnal throughout the winter months, the Woodcock is a rather unusual bird. Although it belongs to a group of birds known as waders, the Woodcock isn’t exactly the sort of bird that you would see feeding on coastal mudflats or alongside saline lagoons. Instead, it is a bird of woodland, probing the soft ground for earthworms and living a predominantly solitary existence.

During the winter months, Woodcock can be found at night feeding in damp or marshy fields, close to the woodland to which they retreat at dawn. In summer, they switch to daytime feeding but remain, largely overlooked, within woodland. They seem to prefer open woodland, not too draughty, but with open rides and good stands of bracken. Looking at this particular bird, I could see how the beautifully marked plumage would provide fantastic camouflage when settled on the woodland floor. The bands of darker colour, set on a russet base, served to break up the outline of the bird and matched the range of colours that you would expect to see on a woodland floor. As it whirred away upon release, I felt incredibly privileged to have seen such a bird in the hand.

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